After two years of knowing we were going to West Africa “someday”, that day finally came! My husband and I were traveling for our 10th anniversary to love and serve the children at Exodus House Orphanage and see what God had planned. We took off on a forever long trip touching down on 3 different states and 4 countries to land in the Republic of Benin. We had the name of a person who would “most likely” pick us up and no phone number. Oh and by the way, the national language is French- I took Latin in high school and Collin took sign language… not at all helpful!!
We were road weary and smelled like airplane food but we made it alive. Our excitement and nerves built inside of us as we waited… and waited to be picked up. It was day 3 of traveling and we had a two hour drive ahead of us. Back at home it was past my bedtime but in Benin it was 4pm. We had to stay awake. Finally a woman came to us and tried to pronounce our names (African French people don’t speak the best Dutch) then told us the taxi had broken down but the driver (forever named Driver to us!) was fixing it and would be along shortly. So we sat some more and finally hopped into the oh-so-trustworthy vehicle and headed out of the city and into the villages. The culture shock of riding down a third-world African road is a story in and of itself but again, we lived to tell the tale (another time!) and arrived in the village of Pahou.
As we pulled up outside the orphanage children spilled out of the gates and rushed up to the car. Their cheering and smiles filled us with joy and we knew God’s love was in this place. They swarmed us and sang “Brother John” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes” to impress us with their English. They grabbed our hands and pulled us into the compound. We couldn’t begin to take in each one of their sweet faces and names but they gladly shared with us everything they could think of to share. We were overcome. After several minutes of this beautiful chaos our host, also known as “Big Mamma,” instructed the kids to gather their instruments and welcome us with African song and dance. The beauty and joy that followed was incredible! More children poured out of the buildings as soon as they heard the beat of drums. I think the best part of it for them is watching us try to dance because, of course, we were not allowed to sit and rest our weary feet! We attempted to copy the moves we saw and feel the rhythm as best we could but there was much laughter and pointing. We were the entertainment and we knew it. As I laughed at myself I looked around at the smiling faces and noticed the concentric circles of children- outgoing and self-assured kids were right up close, the exuberant and interested kids right behind them, uncertain bystanders kept a little more distance but stayed close enough to witness it all. Beyond that were a few “outsiders” who stood by a wall or continued their playing or work. It was in this last group that I saw two boys running past and I froze. I knew that face. I had memorized that profile.
Later that night when we finally fell into bed in our African home-away-from-home, I told Collin what I had seen: “I saw our son,” “I must be crazy,” “How could it be him!?” I couldn’t begin to process what I saw in the orphanage, never mind that our boy was quite possibly here and not in the US foster system! I was obviously beyond tired. I wasn’t sure of anything. Thank you Jesus for my even-steven hubby who soothed me with words of peace and encouraged me to search for him tomorrow and pray. “Time will tell.”
The next day a part of me wanted to bust into the boys dormitory and search every bed for our boy. I wanted to stare into every pair of eyes and ask God “is this him?” But I held back, I waited and loved each and every child I got to hold hands with and listen to and sing with. We had so much fun playing games and learning French. About midday I saw two boys running again and I reached out and snatched one out of the air. He looked at me incredulously and leaned in for a snuggle. I don’t think it ever crossed his mind to gain the attention of the Americans- there were 73 other kids who were vying for that.
I had a storybook moment. You know that moment, when a mother has just pushed until every vein on her temples stands out and she’s shaking from fatigue after laboring for hours. At the sound of the first cry she looks down and sees the head of her very own child- the fruit of so much labor- rising and reaches out as the doctor or nurse places that baby for the first time on it’s mother’s chest. The mother can finally rest in knowing her child is alive and well. She rejoices in holding that child because IT IS HERS. I looked at this child’s dimples and traced the shape of his ear. I held his hands and counted every finger. I kissed his head and breathed in the scent of African dust and the hot sun. I hugged him and felt his ribs and belly and I traced a pattern on the smooth skin of his skinny arms. I memorized the shape of his nose and the way he raised his eyebrows and laughed. And he was content to bask in this attention and I was content in knowing he was alive and well and he was mine.